Remembering Madam C. J. Walker, an African American Entrepreneur and Pioneer
By Sandy Wilson, Executive Vice President, Managing Director of Sales, BHS Riverdale & Harlem
In honor of Black History Month, I want to share the wonderful story of an African American entrepreneur who went on to become the first self-made millionaire in the U.S. Her name was Madam C. J. Walker. It’s a marvelous story but one that is not as well-known.
In the book, “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker” by her great, great granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, we learn of Sarah Breedlove’s life from her childhood through to her great achievements in her later years, when she became known as Madam Walker.
Born on December 23, 1867 in Louisiana, Sarah was the first free child of parents who were slaves. Sarah was orphaned at seven, married at 14, and a widowed mother by 21. In her early years she was a washer woman earning $1.50 per week! Even though her early life was spent in harsh environments, Sarah was not deterred.
To improve her circumstances, in 1910 Sarah moved to St. Louis, where she pursued her interest in woman’s hair care products. Sarah had problems with her own once lush hair, experiencing severe fallout while using harsh lye-based chemicals. Because of this, she wanted to create a product that would restore her own beautiful hair.
She experimented with various formulas, finally inventing one that proved to be a solution for her hair problems. People noticed, began requesting the product, and her hair business began to take off. Her early success was considered groundbreaking for an African American woman born of slaves. By now known as Madam C.J. Walker, she was on the cusp of greatness.
Her formulas were not just effective, they were also ahead of their time. They offered a natural and healthy alternative to harsh hair treatment products. Her bestseller was a vegetable-based organic shampoo that was said to help with dandruff and dry scalp.
Word of mouth about her products spread, and orders were now coming in at a more rapid pace. In 1911, Madam Walker opened a factory in Indianapolis to manufacture her products on a larger scale. This success was later accelerated by an ambitious advertising campaign. She traveled the world to bring her products to others and teach them “The Walker Beauty System.”
Later on, Madam Walker moved east and owned townhouses in Harlem as well as a mansion named Villa Lewaro in Irvington-On-Hudson, NY. Over the years, she became an important figure in the African American community. She enjoyed entertaining in her homes, welcoming such notable figures as historian W.E.B. Du Bois and social activist Booker T. Washington.
Madam Walker devoted her later years to expanding her enterprise throughout the U.S. and training groups of “Walker beauty culturists” in her hair care systems. She also advocated tirelessly on behalf of gender and racial equality. She died in 1919, leaving behind her only child, A'Lelia Walker, who was well-known during the Harlem Renaissance and a close friend of writers Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.
Madam Walker also left behind a legacy of wealth, philanthropy, and social justice to carry her memory forward. In 1998, she was honored with a commemorative United States stamp bearing her image. Today, more than 100 years after her death, we remember Madam C. J. Walker and the many obstacles she overcame to achieve prominence and success as an entrepreneur and philanthropist.